Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

Northern Ireland’s Cost of Living Crisis Doesn’t Fit with Cameron and Osborne’s Austerity Narratives

A new study shows how the effects of austerity on women and children are now being compounded by the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland

Shoppers in Derry, Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Photo: George Sweeney/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

When the architects of austerity, David Cameron and George Osborne, gave evidence to the COVID Inquiry, and refused to accept that years of cuts have had a devastating impact on public services, women in Northern Ireland begged to differ.

Cameron and Osborne’s efforts to ‘rewrite’ the history of austerity coincided with a damning report by the Women’s Regional Consortium and the University of Ulster, which lays bare the damage done to women by more than a decade of cuts in Northern Ireland.

The study shows how the effects of austerity on women and children are now being compounded by the cost of living crisis. It concludes that things will only get worse as a slew of fresh cuts come down the pipeline across the region in the year ahead.

In recent days, for example, the Department for Infrastructure announced plans to switch off every street light in Northern Ireland, between 1 January 2024 and 31 March 2024, in a bid to save money.

The report, which went all but unnoticed outside Northern Ireland, warned that drastic cuts slated for the 2023/24 budget year are set to impoverish the most financially vulnerable women even further as vital programmes on which poorer families rely are jettisoned.

One of the programmes on the chopping block is the Holiday Hunger Scheme for children entitled to free school meals. Its closure means approximately 96,300 children will no longer have an additional £27 a fortnight for food over the summer break, putting even greater financial pressure on families already living in poverty. Another victim of the cuts is Happy Healthy Minds, a counselling programme for school children. 

Siobhan Harding, of the Women’s Support Network – one of the seven organisations in the consortium – says axing essential support schemes for children in need “piled on” the pressure for families both in terms of household budgets and mental health. 

Brexit and the Fracturing of British Identity: A Warning From Ireland

Hardeep Matharu speaks to acclaimed playwright Frank McGuinness about where the nationalist Brexit project being trumpeted by Boris Johnson could end up

“Women are at crisis point,” Harding says. “Years of austerity measures, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis has created a perfect storm for women who are left to become shock absorbers of poverty in their homes.”

The report, which canvassed women in areas of greatest need, concluded: “The proposed cuts associated with the 2023/24 budget will compound the already dire situation for those relying on social security, particularly women.”

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, Lecturer in Social Security and Poverty at the Ulster University, says what’s taking place is “concentrated austerity”. The planned new budget cuts stand to “decimate provision” that the most deprived communities rely on, Fitzpatrick adds. “I’ve worked on social security for the past 10 years and have never felt as grim about the future in Northern Ireland.” 

Goretti Horgan, a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University, says cuts to education budgets, including extended schools activities, holiday hunger payments and other provision for children “will do the most damage”. Northern Ireland “already spends considerably less on our children than Scotland, England and Wales”.

Departments across the devolved administration began targeting areas for the swingeing cuts following a budget set by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. In the absence of a functioning government at Stormont – the assembly is currently not sitting as a result of the latest political impasse triggered by the DUP’s ongoing protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements – the Westminster-imposed budget stipulated that shortfalls from the previous year be repaid. It’s down to civil servants to implement the cuts.

Despite a temporary reprieve from the Heaton-Harris in the form of some flexibility for paying back the almost £300 million overspend, many cuts are being pushed through.

The Department for Communities, which oversees services including social security and employment support, announced a resource funding gap of £111.2 million (15.5%). The Department of Education has had its budget slashed by £66.4 million (2.5%) on the previous fiscal year (against a backdrop of rising demand), according to the department’s figures.

Meanwhile the Children’s Law Centre has written to Heaton-Harris saying he failed to meet the principle of equality in the budget by not assessing the cumulative impact of cuts that “disproportionately” affect disadvantaged children, including disabled children.

Fergal McFerran, policy and advocacy manager at the centre, said in a statement: “From our engagement with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office, we see no evidence that Chris Heaton-Harris has carried out his legal obligations.”

Families across the UK are struggling with fall-out from more than a decade of austerity as well as the cost of living crisis, but Nick Mathison, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and spokesperson on poverty and social exclusion for the cross-community Alliance Party, says Northern Ireland’s specific circumstances aren’t necessarily widely understood.

Don’t miss a story

The legacy of the Troubles, including for mental health, as well as “generations of under-investment” mean there is a steep policy hill to climb at a time when there is no government in place to plan ahead.

The political vacuum at Stormont, which means elected politicians can’t get on with the work of strategy and oversight, exacerbates existing problems, Mathison argues, while civil servants are left to “administer” the public finances. “Context is really important,” he adds. “No functioning government is not a normal situation.”

Cuts may be being rolling-out but that doesn’t mean they’ve been taken lying down. The latest wave has been met with fierce pushback, including a Communities Against Cuts protest in Belfast city centre. The first stage of an Equality Impact Assessment consultation has also been completed with the result that some cuts have been put on hold or mitigations introduced.

When the Department for Communities released its final budget on 21 June, it announced for example that it would be continuing funding in 2023/24 for the Supporting People Programme which helps people live independently in the community. The Department of Education announced it would no longer go ahead with cuts to youth services and a range of early years programmes, including Sure Start, which operates in some of the most deprived communities. Another early years programme, Toybox, which caters to Roma and traveller young children and their families, will also continue to be funded.

Announcing the extended funding, education permanent secretary, Dr Mark Browne said: “Evidence shows that the scale of the proposed cuts to Early Years, Extended Schools and Youth Service programmes would create greater budgetary pressures for the next financial year and beyond across a range of areas, including special educational needs.”

It remains unclear if the devolved administration will be back up and running any time soon. In the meantime, those organisations – including women’s centres – left to pick up the pieces in communities as cuts are rolled-out face an uphill battle.

Harding says that, rather than feeding into a functioning government’s strategy, voluntary and community organisations – themselves under financial pressure from cuts – are left “shouting into an empty space,” as people suffer.

Mary O’Hara is the author of ‘Austerity Bites: A journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK‘ and ‘The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , ,